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Choosing the tools that will power your website is a critical part of the web development process. For many projects, this includes selecting a content management system (CMS) to make it easier for marketers or content editors to edit and manage website content.

If you’re currently on the hunt for a new CMS, the good news is that there are more choices now than ever before. The bad news is that this can make it more challenging to choose the right one, especially for non-technical decision-makers.

The best place to start when figuring out how to choose a CMS is to get educated about the different types available. Once you better understand your options and the technology behind them, you’ll be able to significantly narrow down the parameters for your search.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the most popular types of content management systems, their biggest benefits and drawbacks, and examples of different options.

Before you get started, make sure you’re clear on the details of your website, such as what features will be required and who will be managing content. If you can’t answer these types of questions, it will be difficult to determine what CMS will be the best fit.

Once you’ve better defined the needs and goals of your website, then you’re ready to get started.

Proprietary vs. open source

Before diving into the technical details of the various content management systems, you’ll likely want to address whether or not you are looking for a proprietary CMS or an open source alternative.

Why choose a proprietary CMS?

Proprietary content management systems come with a cost and are licensed by a single vendor. They typically have a dedicated support team and will customize the platform to your business needs.

Choosing a commercially available CMS often requires more research on your part to ensure that the vendor you choose is a good fit and offers the right level of features for your website.

Since this type of CMS comes with a price tag, you don’t want to be locked down to a service that isn’t meeting your needs. Furthermore, since the software is owned by the vendor, you’ll want to get clarification on what happens to your data if you cancel services.

The benefit of using a proprietary CMS is that you have a website partner to help you use the tools provided and to handle the management of the code. That makes it a good choice for businesses that want individual attention and support without having to do everything themselves.

Some popular proprietary CMS options include:
In addition, many web development companies offer their own custom CMS.

Why choose an open source CMS?

Open source content management systems are free, which is often their most attractive feature.

Open source tools are licensed to allow anyone to access and modify the source code. This means that a popular open source CMS typically has good community support and a large base of knowledgeable professionals that can help you with your website.

Another benefit of an open source CMS is that third-party developers can create add-on functionality to make it easier for the average user to enable additional features. However, the drawback of using third-party features is that they often come with limited to no support, and no guarantee that they will be continually updated in the future.

Overuse of plugins can also leave you with a messy setup that is hard to manage or update.

An open source CMS might be a good choice if you are working on a budget or if you don’t have a dedicated development team and need a well-known tool to ensure flexibility in getting assistance.

WordPress is by far one of the most popular examples of an open source CMS. Others include:

Which option is best for my website?

Overall, consider both your website goals and your long-term marketing goals when making a decision between an open source or proprietary CMS. Do you just need to get a website up and running on a limited budget? Are you looking for a full-service website and marketing partner? Choose the CMS type the best aligns with your business needs and limitations.

Once you’re clear on licensing options, it’s time to decide on what type of CMS you want from a technology standpoint.

Traditional CMS

Traditional content management systems are typically the most familiar to those that have used a CMS in the past. They consist of front-end files, such as templates and assets, a database to hold content, and application code to connect it all. They also include some type of dashboard where users can easily edit content.

WordPress is a traditional CMS and follows this structure. Users edit content and assets through an admin dashboard, where it’s then saved into a database.

The application code takes that database content and pushes it through to the theme files, which control how the content is structured and displayed on the front-end.

The biggest benefit of a traditional CMS is that all functionality is bundled in the same place and it essentially works “out-of-the-box.”

All you need to get your website functioning quickly is there. It’s a good choice if you want a standalone system that handles everything all in one place.

Some examples of traditional CMS solutions include:

Headless CMS

A headless CMS differs from a traditional CMS in that it serves content through an API. This means that content is still managed through a dashboard but is then pulled into a separately built website or application.

The term “headless” refers to the fact that the “head”, or front-end display, is nonexistent on the CMS side.

A headless approach allows you to use your preferred technology to build a website while still benefiting from the content editing capabilities of a CMS.

You can streamline and customize your website as you see fit without the constraints of a traditional CMS. It gives you complete control over where and how your content is delivered.

This approach is also useful if you want to use the same content across multiple websites and applications, while only needing to update it once. This makes it a more future-friendly option since your content can be repurposed in new ways whenever needed.

A headless CMS is a good option for businesses that have dedicated development teams that have strong preferences for specific technologies, or an existing website/application that needs to be integrated with a CMS without being completely rebuilt.

Some examples of headless CMS solutions include:

Decoupled CMS

A decoupled CMS is similar to a headless CMS, but it’s more an intermediary between headless and traditional.

A decoupled CMS also separates, or “decouples,” the back-end content and the front-end display.

Content is served using an API in this case as well, with the content being managed in one place, and the website code managed in another. However, unlike headless CMS options, there is still some type of front-end delivery system.

This is a good option if you are looking for a compromise between traditional and headless content management systems. It retains the front-end layer and some level of traditional CMS functionality but still gives you the ability to deliver content in a variety of ways through an API.

Some examples of decoupled CMS solutions include:

Flat-file CMS

A flat-file CMS typically functions like a traditional CMS, with an interface for editing and managing content, and some type of front-end templating system. However, its primary difference is that it doesn’t require a database.

When a user adds or updates content, it’s saved to a file on the server instead.

A major benefit to a flat-file system is that content can be version controlled just the same as template or asset files. Furthermore, with the absence of database queries, your website will likely be faster.

Since flat-file systems run on fewer resources and space than a traditional CMS, they are typically more cost-effective when it comes to hosting as well.

If you are looking for a lightweight CMS with an easy setup, or if you have a small website that doesn’t need all the bells and whistles of a larger CMS, a flat-file alternative might be the way to go.

Some examples flat-file CMS solutions include:


It’s worth noting that if you need eCommerce capabilities, you’ll probably be more limited in your choice of a CMS. There are some tools that can be integrated within existing content management systems to help you build an eCommerce website, such as WooCommerce, an eCommerce plugin for WordPress. However, if your desired CMS does not have that option, you’ll likely need to look at standalone tools that specialize in eCommerce based websites instead.

Some examples of eCommerce CMS solutions include:

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